“Are you nervous?” I asked the passenger ahead of me in the line-up to check in for the flight to Gatwick from Vancouver. An hour later after we had taken off, I asked the same question to the passenger in the seat beside me.
Both times, they separately eyed me warily and answered the same: “Why?”
It had not dawned on any of us traveling on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that the day should be anything other than the new normal.
A decade and a day before September 11, 2001, no one ever thought twice about bringing in water bottles past security checks or wearing only slip-on shoes for traveling much less know by sight what a 100 ml bottle size would look like.
“It’s just part of our routine now isn’t it when we travel?” said the woman beside me in the waiting lounge at YVR. “The tenth anniversary wasn’t what I thought about when I booked my ticket. It was just another day but not really, is it?”
Airports around the world have poured in billions of dollars in heightened security and passengers have become accustomed to long waits. At YVR alone, $200 million have been spent since 9/11.
All the now normal security reminded me of another non-memorable flight.
My assignment on the turn of the millennium was to be in the air at the stroke of midnight. A reporter had been assigned full-time to monitor what all the different agencies were doing in preparation for Y2K for a whole year leading up to December 31, 1999.
Every reporter that New Year’s Eve had to be stationed in a specific location to report on what was going to happen at the dawn of the new millennium.
As everyone knows the front pages on January 1, 2000 were all about how nothing happened.
But that night, up in the air, as my flight departed around 8 pm New York time bound for Vancouver, there was still the hope that the new millennium would arrive with a bang.
I had three tries at it up in the air. We passed through Newfoundland’s midnight. Nothing happened. Then eastern standard time and we were still flying, and somewhere over South Dakota when we hit mountain standard time, I knew it was time to call my editor with the bad news.
“Dan, it’s me,” I said in my first ever phone call from an airplane.
The disappointment was clear from his sigh even before he spoke. “Shit. Fong’s alive. We don’t have a front page.”
I filed my story by fax line after interviewing the 7 passengers on board that 747. Like the passengers I talked to earlier this week on 9/11 2011, none had thought much about the potential perils of Y2K.
After each stroke of midnight, the flight attendants came out with free champagne and like the rest of us, they were happy and we all looked hokey n our 2000 sparkly fake glasses. We toasted each other and circulated around that big empty airplane like we were at a cocktail party.
Then about an hour before we landed, one of the flight attendants leaned over and said the pilot wanted me to join them as we descended into Vancouver. I made my way into the unlocked cockpit and strapped into the seats behind the two pilots.
We would land at 11:50 pm and I would find waiting at the airport, nothing. An empty airport with just one guy pushing a mop. We wished each other a happy new year and we both watched the clock turn to an uneventful 12:02 am.
But in those minutes between 11 pm and midnight at the beginning of a new millennium, there was still the possibility, as we sat in the cockpit and saw the lights of Vancouver spread its glow over the dark night that something terribly wrong could occur.
It didn’t then and we had no idea how much worse it would be on a date when nothing bad was expected to happen. I think back to that flight on December 31, 1999 when everyone thought the turn of the clock would cause our banking systems to crash, trains would stop running and planes fall out of the sky and remember just how brights those lights were as we came down to the ground.
ps the pictures above are of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales which opened in 1999.